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WASHINGTON: Russia, Pakistan and Iran are malign actors in Afghanistan because they ‘enable’ the insurgents fighting the Kabul government, says a report by an official US watchdog, quoting senior US military officials who raised this issue in recent congressional hearings.

In a report released on Sunday evening, the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) notes that in the last quarter — January to April 2017 — a “shockingly high” number of official Afghan troops were killed in clashes with the militants. As many as 807 troops from the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces died between Jan 1 and Feb 24.

The report, however, indicates that the renewed Russian involvement in Afghanistan was even more shocking for the US military than an unprecedented increase in attacks on both Afghan and American troops.

“This quarter, Russia appeared to step up its involvement in Afghanistan,” claims the report, while noting that on Dec 2 last year, Gen John W. Nicholson Jr., the Commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, “labelled Russia, Pakistan, and Iran as malign actors that enable insurgent or terrorist groups in Afghanistan”.

Gen Nicholson also said that “Russia lends public legitimacy to the Taliban, which undermines the Afghan government and Nato efforts to stabilise Afghanistan,” the report adds.

The SIGAR report includes quotes from Generals Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander, US European Command and Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Joseph Votel, Commander, United States Central Command, suggesting that Russia may be “supplying the Taliban”.

“Russian influence in Afghanistan has increased to the point that includes “perhaps [they] even supply to the Taliban,” Gen Scaparrotti said. “It’s fair to assume [the Russian government] may be providing some kind of support to [the Taliban] in terms of weapons or other things,” Gen Votel added.

The Russian government publicly rejected such remarks as incorrect.

The report points out that US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has been more careful than his generals in commenting on Russia’s growing influence in Afghanistan. “I’m not willing to say at this point if that has manifested into weapons and that sort of thing. But certainly, what they’re up to there in light of their other activities gives us concern,” the secretary said in a recent statement.

The report also refers to a peace process initiated by Russia, China and Pakistan and noted that the three states met in Moscow on Dec 27, 2016, to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. At the time, the Afghan government expressed its displeasure at not being invited to the meeting.

Taliban, a national force

On Feb 15, Afghanistan, as well as India and Iran joined the previous three countries for a follow-up meeting in Moscow and in March, a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s national security adviser referred to the Russian government as “an important ally”.

The Russian government issued a statement following the Feb 27 meeting, noting that participants had agreed to accelerate their efforts to support the Afghan peace process. The participants also decided to invite several Central Asian republics to the next regional meeting on Afghanistan.

The SIGAR report notes that in April, Pakistan’s foreign policy aide to the prime minister publicly called for US participation in the Russian-sponsored talks, saying that the US is the “biggest stakeholder” in Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the US State Department, however, said the US did not attend the talks as their purpose was unclear.

The official US report also quotes from an interview Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, gave to the Bloomberg news agency, saying that the Taliban “have given up global jihad and have become a national force”. Kabulov also said that the Taliban were “justified” in opposing a foreign military presence.

While discussing bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report notes that in a recent statement the UN secretary-general also expressed concern over tensions between the two neighbouring states, and senior officials of both governments regularly blamed the other country for insurgent attacks.

On Feb 17, Pakistan closed its border with Afghanistan to all traffic and conducted cross-border shelling, targeting suspected militants on Afghan territory. The report quotes the State Department as saying that the US and UK governments had to intervene diplomatically, to get the border reopened on March 20.

After it reopened the border, Pakistan announced that it would start building a fence along the areas bordering Afghanistan’s Nang­arhar and Kunar provinces. And officials in Kabul said that the Afghan government would not allow such construction.

‘Peace means forgiving blood’

The SIGAR report notes that in September 2016, the Afghan government finalised a peace agreement with the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) insurgent group. In the peace deal, the Afghan government committed to several actions, including requesting the removal of HIG leaders from the UN’s and others’ sanctions lists.

In January, the Afghan government successfully lobbied the UN to remove Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s name from the UN sanctions regime.

The US State Department described the delisting as a sign of “a strong international and regional consensus for Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation efforts.”

Two of Afghanistan’s influential neighbours, Russia and China also backed the move.

But “Hekmatyar’s political rivals fear his return to Afghanistan, as they believe a united HIG could become the country’s largest political party,” the report adds, quoting from a UN report.

The UN report also noted that human rights advocates had expressed their concern with the terms of the HIG peace agreement, given the agreement’s failure to fully address victims’ grievances and suspected human rights violations. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani defended the agreement, saying that “peace means forgiving blood”.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2017